Nijo Castle and Fushimi Inari: Kyoto’s Hidden Treasures
Kyoto is a top destination for tourists coming to Japan. Perhaps second only to Tokyo in terms of popularity, this classical city has something for everyone. However, have a quick thumb through most of the guide books for tourists and you’ll find many of the same places repeated again and again. Kiyomizu Temple, Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji. Whilst these places are both culturally enthralling and visually stunning, Kiyomizu especially, they form a thoroughly well-beaten track that millions of tourists traverse each year.
So the question is, where can one go in Kyoto for something a bit different, something that you won’t see every day, or ready about in every guide book? Come with me now as we discover some of Kyoto’s hidden treasures.
It may not be top of everyone’s must see list, but Nijo Castle is in its own right a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Nijo Castle is about 15 minutes by taxi, or about a one hour walk from Kyoto Kawaramachi Station. If the weather is good, it’s a really pleasant walk, taking in Kyoto’s Gion district and a couple of other tourist spots en route.
The castle can trace its origins back to the 15th century when it was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the de-facto rulers of Japan at that time, to serve as their Kyoto residence. It was the Tokugawas who originally stripped Kyoto of its status as the nation’s capital city, instead bestowing that honour on the northern city of Edo, which would eventually come to be know as Tokyo. However, they realized the importance of maintaining a strong show of strength and power in the old capital since the Emperor remained resident in Kyoto until much more recently. The Kyoto Imperial Palace is nearby, just to the northeast of the Castle.
The castle was handed over to the Imperial household during the Meiji Era and later donated to the government of the City of Kyoto in 1939. One year later it opened to the public as a tourist attraction.
The Castle comprises two palaces, Ninomaru and Honmaru, which overlook a vast and elaborate garden.
The Ninomaru Palace is where the resident Shogun would receive guests, dignitaries and other visitors. Hence, it has a stunningly ornate décor, with huge ammounts of gold leaf and stunning paintings adorning the sliding doors into each of the 8 rooms.
This is representative of a time in Japanese history when power was based on reputation, status and image rather than actual physical strength or prowess in battle. For the Tokugawa Shogun, keeping up appearances was everything.
Safety was also a prime consideration for the Shogun. As any political leader will tell you, the more powerful you become, the more people will want to bring you down. To that end the threat of assassination was a constant concern to the Shogun and his guards. The designers of Nijo Castle devised a novel way to counteract this threat. The so-called “nightingale floors” were constructed in such a way that it was impossible for anyone to walk on them without making an audible “squeaking” sound. Today in the castle, you can see children trying their hardest to defy Newtonian laws and in admirable determination become the first to move silently across the floor. Of course, none succeed.
To the rear of the Ninomaru Palace, we have the Honmaru Palace. Approximately half the size, and considerably less imposing than the Ninomaru Palace, Honmaru nonetheless is has some striking architecture and houses several paintings from venerated Japanese masters like Kanou Eigaku. In recent Japanese history Honmaru Palace is most famous for being the location of the coronation banquet of the late Emperor Hirohito in 1928.
The gardens behind the two palaces are predictably stunning. I recommend going there in the late-autumn time. Rivers flowing with Koi carp accompany beautiful stone shrines and a cornucopia of colour from the trees encircling them. Once you’re down with Nijo, It’s time to head off-piste as it were and out of Kyoto city centre, and great ready to do a bit of hill-walking.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is located near Inari Station, on the JR Nara line. While it is only a 5 minute ride from Kyoto station, the area has a distinctly suburban feel. Small restaurants and sleepy cafes dot the landscape in front of the imposing shrine, which forms the centerpiece of the entire area. Whilst the main shrine was not built into the mountain, Inariyama until 1499, shrines of one kind or another have existed on the hillside since the 6th century AD.
The shrine is characterized by its abundance of Torii gates. These gates line the path from the bottom of the hill all the way to the shrine at the top. Upon inspection you will notice that the sides of each torii are engraved with unique Japanese lettering. These characters represent the names of companies and corporations who have had a torii erected in their name to bring good luck and prosperity to their business.
The entrance to the shrine complex also contains two large kitsune (fox) statues, adorned with red scarves. Again these animals are a symbol of good fortune and prosperity in this particular branch of the Shinto belief system. Walking from the top to the bottom of the shrine takes around 1 hour, probably a lot less if you’re reasonably fit, which I am not. Once at the top, you can enjoy a cup of tea from the nearby shop and say a prayer for you and your family’s future good fortune. Do an about turn, and you will be treated to a splendid panoramic view of Kyoto City from above. The view is particularly stunning at sunset; however that can make the trek back down the hillside, in near darkness, somewhat treacherous. Still, if you fancy an adventure, why not give it a try.
Kyoto is a wondrous city, where every corner turned seems to lead to a new adventure. In visiting Nijo Castle and Fushimi Inari, you may just have the best adventure of your holiday.